Authors: Deborah MacGillivray
Halfway out the screen door, the pudgy equine wheeled and tried to dodge between her legs to get back into the kitchen.
“Nooooo-no-no-no-no you don’t.” Raven leaned over and managed to herd the toy pony, barely taller than her
knee, outside. “Marvin, you can’t stay in the house. Get it out of your brain!”
Trev watched from the corner of the porch as Raven prodded the pony down a path to a small stable at the far side of the heavily landscaped property, and then inside. He followed, itching to see what she was doing. Clinging to the deep shadows, he stood so he could see into the barn. Raven spread straw for the pony and gave the beast a scoop of corn and fresh water.
Trev liked watching her, liked how she moved. There was a vital strength to the way her muscles shifted and stretched: sinuous, with the angelic grace of a ballet dancer though that body was built for sin. Closing his eyes for a minute, he fought the waves of longing—um,
—that wracked his body in the form of an erection pushing hard against the zipper of his slacks. Swallowing back the agony, he opened his eyes. It had been a long five months.
Trev suddenly felt a tickle to his nose. He rubbed his hand against it to make the sensation go away, but it didn’t. Instead, he felt a sneeze coming on. If he sneezed, she’d hear. And if he was arrested for trespassing and being a Peeping Tom, his brother Dev would have to send Julian Starkadder to bail him out. He would never hear the end of it!
Looking down, Trev saw what was provoking the itch: the grey cat now rubbed against his leg.
“Bloody feline,” he whispered. This was just great. He was allergic to cats. Not bad, but he needed shots to be around them. Which was the crux of the problem. “Needles,” he breathed in revulsion. There was something obscene about sticking pieces of metal into your body.
The sneeze came, but Trev was quick to pinch his nostrils together. Of course, his head felt like a balloon exploding. As he was trying to equalize the pressure, a sharp stab hit his instep. Glancing down again, he saw the stupid, one-legged seagull had arrived.
He frowned. “I thought cats ate birds,” he growled.
The blasted seagull looked up at Trev, cocked its head to one side and then the other, as if asking who he was and why he was there. When no reply came, the evil bird began pecking at his foot again—and its damned beak was sharp and hard! Trev gently shook his foot, trying to scoot the bird-brain away, but the cat reared up and rubbed a little higher on his leg. The resulting sneeze—traveling 165 kilometers per hour—came and there was no holding it back.
Raven’s head snapped around. “Hello? Is someone there?”
“Bloody hell,” Trev muttered under his breath. He dashed back to the house, but nearly tripped as the cat decided this was all a big game and chased around his feet. “Shoo, you mangy feline!”
Raven stepped from the barn, putting her hands on her hips and looking toward the cottage. When she heard nothing more she cocked her head toward the road, staring out into the night. Trev prayed she couldn’t see his black car under the centuries-old oak. He doubted it, not through all the autumn foliage.
She finally noticed the bird hopping about. “What are you up to, Atticus? I didn’t know birds sneezed.” Closing the barn door, she scooped up the seagull, tucked him under one arm, and started back to the house.
Trev faded into the shadows of a different oak, hiding behind its thick trunk. He rotated as she walked, keeping to her blind side. She passed so close that, if he dared, he could reach out and touch her shoulder. With the faint wisps of fog swirling close to the ground, and with the way the shadows caressed her face and body, she seemed exotic, mythical, an elfin creature perhaps with the powers of the
, a fairy lover conjured to drive a man to torment. Her scent wafted up: lemon and cinnamon, as if she had been baking. These weren’t scents he
would associate with sex, but nonetheless his mouth watered.
His hand lifted, and for an instant he intended to reach out and touch her—to
her. He ached to possess her, to own her, to bring his attraction to this woman down to pure animalistic cravings. Nothing Then perhaps these jumbled feelings she provoked would be banished from him and he could stop acting like a total idiot. But his hand dropped and she passed by.
She stopped at the porch and deposited the bird on the wooden floor. Her hand reached for the back doorknob. Hesitating, she slowly rotated to look directly at the tall oak where Trevelyn hid. She stood, her beautiful face caught in pale yellow shadows thrown by the kitchen light. He could almost taste her fragile femininity.
She stared out into the night, watching, waiting, almost as if she knew he was there. She could sense him, and was perturbed. But…there was no way she could see him behind the tree, no way she perceived his presence. Prickles rippled up the back of his neck as he told himself not to get fanciful.
“Who’s there?” she asked of the night. But then one shoulder lifted in a shrug and she hurried inside. The seagull hopped to the door and followed through a metal pet entrance.
“‘Tis me—the Big Bad Wolf,” Trev whispered. “I hope you’re ready, Red, because I’m coming tomorrow. Enough of these games. Tomorrow, Red, I’ll huff and puff and blow your house down…”
Whistling an old tune by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, he made his way to his car. Pulling his keys from his pocket, he glanced back to the house to see the light in Raven’s loft bedroom wink out. “‘You’re everything a Big Bad Wolf could want.’”
“Something’s going to happen tonight. Maybe something dangerous,” Raven Montgomerie whispered to the wooden dummy staring back at her, lowly enough that no one heard.
She wasn’t one to embrace change of any kind. In truth, she worked very hard to create a cocoon, shielding herself from the world and the hurts it could bring. But spellbound by the clockwork fortune-teller, she ran her hands over the polished wooden case, fascinated by the love that had gone into its crafting. The golden oak booth held the life-sized figure, a Gypsy dressed in purple and black and so real in every detail that Raven expected to see her chest rise and fall with breaths. And the Gypsy was…familiar.
As she watched her twin brothers Phelan and Skylar, and her longtime friend Brishen, carefully shift the six-foot-tall rectangular box into position, the statue’s amber eyes almost seemed to follow her. A poignant quality about the carved mannequin sent a shiver up Raven’s spine. Precisely why remained elusive in the same way as her fey belief that tonight was different in some way, the premonition that promised her life would soon take a turn either for the better or the worse. Descended from a long line of Scottish witches, Raven ofttimes heard a voice speak in her mind, warning when an unusual occurrence loomed near. But instead of the usual whispered premonitions, her little internal voice was shouting. It was making her jittery, panicky.
It had been the same last night. She’d almost been certain someone stood outside her house, watching. Silly
notion, but one she couldn’t shake. Because of that lingering feeling, she hadn’t rested at all. What little time she’d drowsed, she had been haunted by the eyes of the painting she was working on. They floated at the edge of her mind, as if she needed only to concentrate hard enough to recall…recall
“‘By the pricking of my thumbs,’” she breathed, audible to herself only, striving for a touch of levity in the words of the Bard. The attempt failed.
Dismissing her rising trepidation, Raven returned her attention to the fortune-teller booth. “Oh, what a find! Just the special focal point I needed for the gala. I was fearful it wouldn’t arrive in time. I’m going to hug LynneAnne when she comes back,” she said to the three men.
The booth was a gift from her sister, who was currently touring Europe buying items for her business. Raven’s older sibling restored vintage merry-go-rounds, and often trekked to backwater towns all over the States, Canada and Europe, searching for neglected painted ponies to purchase and reclaim. On her last trip, LynneAnne discovered this box in a forlorn state, bought and restored it for Raven’s birthday—and in time to be the focal point of tonight’s gala. Tomorrow Raven would take it home, place it in the conservatory of her thatched house and cherish it endlessly.
“Careful!” She half jumped in alarm when her brothers set the box to rocking. A moment later, the Gypsy was in motion; hands lifted and made passes over the large crystal ball before her. So deft were the mannequin’s movements, Raven expected a real person to pop out of the booth and scream, “Surprise—fooled you!” The huge ball glowed and swirled, hypnotizing her.
Shrugging off the sudden dizziness, Raven noticed all eyes were upon her watching the fortune-teller. To cover her odd reaction, she explained, “That mechanical doll is called an automaton—a forerunner to today’s robots. If you drop a coin into the slot, she goes through those
movements, and a card—a tarot image on one side and a sage fortune on the reverse—appears in the niche at the side. At least, LynneAnne assured me it would.”
“It’s a mechanical
” her friend Brishen explained. “That’s Romani for ‘fortune-teller booth.’ She is a
—a reader of cards.”
“Sort of like a huge Magic Eight Ball,” her brother Skylar assessed.
Raven thought for a moment, then nodded. “Actually, that’s rather accu—Careful!” she shrieked as the men edged it too close to a table, nearly scratching the wooden finish and upsetting rows of fluted champagne glasses.
“Come on, sis. It’s cumbersome, but we’re not clubfisted moving men. We’re paying attention to what we’re doing,” Phelan complained. Then he indicated Skylar. “Or I should say
are. Brishen’s too busy looking down your dress.”
Raven picked up the program for the night’s affair, which she’d nervously folded accordion-fashion like a fan, and swatted Brishen’s muscular forearm. “Stop that. Brothers don’t drool over their little sisters.”
“Ah.” The handsome Gypsy smiled. “But therein lies the problem, sexy Raven. You’re not my sister, despite your silly insistence, so at times I claim the right to indulge in a little manly appreciation. Tonight, you’re especially gorgeous in that red gown. While Romani mistrust that shade and fear it brings
—ill-luck—you’ll make your own fortune tonight. All men’s eyes will be glued to you. But beware, little one. The women shall hate you for it.”
“You’re balm to a lady’s ego.” Raven rose up on tippytoes and brushed a kiss to her friend’s cheek. “But save the razzle-dazzle for someone who’ll respond. I still think you’d make a good husband for Paganne. She needs someone like you.”
Brishen’s laugh was booming, a wondrous expression of his joy in life. “Only if your little sister will come live in my
and share my life with the
travel among our caravan to follow my calling, to walk in the footsteps of the heroic Milosh, the greatest—”
“—vampire hunter to ever take up the stake,” Raven joined in. It was an old song and dance. Brishen was descended from the legendary Milosh, who two centuries before had been a serious vampire hunter, according to Gypsy lore. Still, she’d never understood how much Brishen truly bought into the idea of hunting vampires in this day and age, and how much was charming shtick.
“Well, you’ve a problem there. You’ll never lure Paganne far from her library or her archaeological digs. She’s determined to be the one to locate Boadicea’s grave, resolute to prove the Romans murdered her instead of the accepted version of suicide.”
Brishen shook his head. “The pretty lass needs to stop dreaming about the past, find a good man and make beautiful babies. Then she’ll be happy.”
“Don’t say that to her,” Raven laughed, “or she’ll take that Pictish knife our grandmother gave her and carve her initials on your chest.”
“Ah, I’d rather she’d carve them on my heart, but I’ve given up hope. Yet another of the beautiful Montgomerie sisters I’ve lost. You ladies are hard on a man’s libido—and on his tender heart.”
Skylar released the straps around it and stood back to admire the fortune-teller. “She’s a beauty,” he acknowledged. “Has Bette Davis eyes. She’s so real
ask her out.”
“She reminds me of someone,” Phelan spoke up. “I feel stupid for not knowing who.” With a shrug, he reached into his pocket and withdrew two coins. Giving Raven a once-over in her strapless gown, he winked and said, “Seeing you don’t have a pocket…here, you should have the honor of the first fortune. It’s your birthday present after all, sis.”
Raven took the two twenty-pence pieces but hesitated, as if by inserting the coins and accepting the fortuneteller’s card her fate would be sealed. That tingling sense
of change brushed against her mind once more. All three men stared, puzzled by her dithering, but how could she explain the strong presentiment that her life was in the balance and nothing after tonight would ever be the same?
Actually, her brothers knew their sisters’ fey ways; they wouldn’t laugh. And Brishen—the mighty vampire hunter—would encourage such an impression. Still, sometimes it seemed better to let life just slap you in the face with a piece of wet liver than expend worry in anticipation of what might be.
“Why do you hesitate, little one? The Gypsy…” Brishen patted the box, his vivid blue eyes twinkling. “She’s a friend of mine. Family. My mother’s father’s sister’s cousin. She’ll treat your fate with care. Word of honor.”
“Is that a
word of honor, or a word to a
?” Raven teased.
“Stop avoiding Lady Fate. Stick a coin into the slot. She’s yours, so you must be first to have your fortune read.”
Raven sighed in resignation, then stepped to the booth. After a deep breath, she carefully dropped the coins into the box and waited. Nothing happened. “Well, bugger. All that foreboding was a waste. You eejits broke her.”
She laughed, but suddenly clicking noises sounded and the Gypsy woman moved. The carved hands once more passed over the huge crystal ball, which began to glow a faint luminous blue, the colors within seeming to swirl. The mannequin tilted her head faintly side to side, then her eyes closed. When the lids lifted, those amber orbs gazed at Raven with such intensity it was hard to recall the figure was only a carved figure in a box. Finally, another click sounded and a card ejected on the side. Raven stared at the lifelike woman, unable to move.
Shaking off her silliness, Raven reached out and took the card. The Lovers. She stared at the image on the card’s face, once more feeling the hand of Fate molding
her future. A warning buzzed in her blood as she studied the image, reluctant to turn it over, fearful to read the fortune on the reverse.
Brishen nudged her elbow. “Go on. See the rest of your fortune. The Gypsy, she promises romance to come—a big handsome lover, eh? But what else does she say?”
Feeling one door close on her life and another open, Raven flipped the card over. A bubbly laugh escaped as she saw the words written there:
Beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“What’s it say?” Phelan asked impatiently.
Raven held up the card to allow them to read it. Phelan and Skylar exchanged glances, then rolled their eyes. Skylar sniggered and started
ing like a sheep.
Brishen smacked his arm. “Silly
‘Tis never wise to mock one with the powers to show you the way.”
“She’s a wooden dummy!” Skylar flashed an exaggerated grimace and rubbed the side of his arm. “I mean, seriously—
What a howl.”
“You miss the point of the foretelling: the wolf.” Brishen shook his head as if Raven’s brother was lacking in the intelligence department. “Try again, Raven. Perhaps the prediction will become clearer with a second card.”
“You don’t seriously believe this—,” Skylar began, only to have Phelan give him an elbow. He frowned at his brother, ignoring the warning. “Stupid me. I’m asking a veteran vampire hunter.”
Brishen scowled back, then stepped to block Raven’s brothers’ view of the booth. “Ignore Flopsy and Mopsy. Don’t be afraid to embrace the unknown, little one.”
Raven put the second coin into the slot and watched as the Gypsy’s hands passed over the crystal ball again. Likely it was only an illusion, perhaps the way Brishen’s body blocked the light, but the swirls within the crystal seemed to take on shapes. As Raven stared breathless
and mesmerized, she could almost swear the eddying blue smoke slowly formed a pair of ghostly eyes.
The image struck a chord within her, some stray forgotten shard of memory, another resonance of déjà vu, as if she had stared into those haunting eyes before. Her heart squeezed, and she couldn’t breathe as a wall of emotions slammed into her, so strong her knees almost buckled. Forcing her mind to focus on the vision—was it real, or simply a play of shadow and light?—she jumped as the box clacked and ejected the next card.
Prickles crawled up her spine as she reached for it. She again stared at The Lovers. When she flipped to the reverse side, the same fortune was written there:
Beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Raven glanced uneasily to Brishen, as if seeking his laughter to reassure her that this was a prank the three of them were playing on her. His expression was anything but comforting.
Trying to dismiss all these queer imaginings, she gave the three men a forced smile. “What? You, Flopsy and Mopsy stacked the deck?”
Phelan leaned past her and inserted a coin, then pulled out his card when it came. Holding it up, he showed The Wheel. “‘Something comes, bringing change,’” he read.
“Boy, is she good. Don’t look now, but ‘something comes’ all right.” Skylar nodded to the front of the hall. “Early guests. Free grub and booze always draws moochers.”
“No one driving a Lamborghini could be a moocher,” Phelan chuckled. “Dig that gull-wing door! What say we go pretend to be valets and ‘park’ it for him.”
Skylar laughed and nodded, moving to steal a canapé. “See you in a bit, sis. We’re off home to change—after we commit grand theft auto.”
“Don’t you dare! Cian will have a fit if you ‘borrow’ that
Lamborghini.” She was joking, though she was unsure if the twins were. They were daredevils. She still recalled the time they were eleven and Skylar tied a rope around Phelan’s chest, then pushed him out of the barn loft to help him learn to fly. Phelan ended up with three cracked ribs, and Skylar couldn’t sit down for two days—Mac had spanked him pretty hard.
Brishen gave her forehead a kiss. “Take care, little Raven.”
“You’re coming back with my brothers, aren’t you?” she asked, feeling the need of support.
Her friend since childhood only shrugged. “I know you and your family welcome me here. Some of the other
…” He allowed the sentence to go unfinished.
“Anyone not welcoming my brother is free to leave.” Raven glanced down at the two cards she held and trembled. Feeling ridiculous, she tucked them behind her back.
Brishen gave a soft laugh. “I keep telling you, I’m not your brother. But very well. I’ll come, but only to see what happens this night. It shall be interesting, I think. The planets’ alignment speaks of a great occurrence, the ending of an old cycle that began a very long time ago and the start of a new one. You feel it, don’t you?”
He lifted a strand of her hair and rubbed it between his fingers. “Gypsies believe red hair brings good luck. You may need it before the clock strikes midnight.
comes for you, lass.”
Raven swallowed the knot in her throat. “Who?”